Mr Gladstone and Ireland

Michael Morrogh explains why Gladstone took up the cause of Irish home rule and why his policies failed so tragically.

Everyone knows Gladstone’s first reaction on being told the news of the General Election result in 1868. Interrupted in his favourite task of tree felling at Hawarden, he turned to the messenger and announced in messianic tones: ‘My mission is to pacify Ireland’. He then swung round and resumed his duties with the axe.

This preoccupation with Ireland was new. Gladstone’s long career before enjoying the Premiership had not seen any particular interest or engagement with that troublesome island to the west. The occasions when he had recommended a policy gave no sign of his later understanding of Irish nationalism. In his priggish youth, as ‘the rising hope of those stern and unbending Tories’, he had defended the absolute position of the Anglican church in Ireland. Later, as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1850s, he had had no compunction about extending income tax to Ireland. He never visited the place, nor had he intervened in the occasional debates over Irish land.

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